Jayashantha Jayawardhana

notes the conflicts teams face

Cultural problems are cropping up with increasing frequency as companies go global and people from different cultures are called on to collaborate on all sorts of projects. Researchers Jeanne Brett, Kristin Behfar and Mary Kern explore this topic in detail in their article titled ‘Managing Cultural Teams.’

They cite a case concerning a major international software company that saw a classic cultural clash derail an important project.

When the company needed to expedite a new product, the project manager assembled a team of employees from India and the US – and from the beginning, the team members failed to agree on a delivery date. The Americans believed it would take about three weeks to complete the project whereas the Indians forecast three months.

Due to setbacks and delays, the situation worsened and the project manager had to intervene but the damage had already been done.

The researchers observed that multicultural teams often engender frustrating management dilemmas. Even though it’s known that cultural differences can create major obstacles to effective teamwork, these may be subtle and difficult to recognise until substantial damage has already been done.

While people generally assume that problems in multicultural teams stem from differing styles of communication, the researchers (based on extensive research evidence) emphasise that it’s only one of the four major causes of cultural conflicts.

These conflicts are direct compared to indirect communication, trouble with accents and fluency, differing attitudes to hierarchy and authority, and conflicting norms of decision making. So what do these conflicts mean?

COMMUNICATION In Western cultures, communication is typically straightforward and explicit. The meaning is clear on the surface and one doesn’t have to know much about the context or the speaker to interpret it.

However, this isn’t the case in many other cultures where typically, the true meaning remains beneath the surface.

In Japan for example, people want to talk and discuss, and make sure there’s harmony in the rest of the organisation. As one American manager who worked with a Japanese team to build an interface for a Japanese-US data system said, “one of the hardest lessons for me was when I thought they were saying ‘yes’ when they simply meant ‘we’re listening to you’.”

LANGUAGE SKILLS Most people read and misread one’s fluency in language as an unmistakable sign of his or her proven expertise in the subject under discussion. Worse still, they tend to regard one’s lack of language fluency as a lack of competency.

But the truth is that there can be smart people who are fluent and incompetent people who aren’t gifted in language skills. But there can be smart people who aren’t very fluent and incompetent people who are gifted with language skills.

Based on such misconceptions, some managers tend to write off what their foreign colleagues who aren’t so fluent bring to the table. The consequences of such flawed conclusions reach way beyond personal grudges and result in massive losses if they go unchecked.

CULTURAL NORMS Typically, multicultural teams have a somewhat flat structure. But team members who hail from countries where hierarchy is held in almost religious fervour find themselves rather ill at ease operating in such flat structures. Such deferential attitudes can damage their status and credibility, and consequently impede career growth in egalitarian cultures.

The researchers quote a manager of Mexican heritage who was working in a credit and underwriting team at a bank.

He explained: “In Mexican culture, you’re always supposed to be humble. So whether you understand something or not, you’re supposed to put it in the form of a question. You have to keep it open-ended out of respect. I think that actually, this worked against me because the Americans thought I really didn’t know what I was talking about. So it made me feel like they thought I was wavering on my answer.”

DECISION MAKING When it comes to the relative speed of decision making, cultures vary widely. For instance, managers in the US make decisions very quickly with little analysis. The researchers cite the case of a Brazilian manager at an American company who was negotiating to buy South Korean products destined for Latin America.

“On the first day, we agreed on three points; and on the second day, the US-Spanish side wanted to start with point four. But the Korean side wanted to go back and discuss points one through three again,” he said.

So if you experience this in your workplace at any time, it’s important to read these cultural nuances accurately rather than make assumptions. It is only then that you’ll be able to figure out the right way to resolve such conflicts.